Reduce stress for your employees

I recently attended the Mount Mary College Women’s Leadership Geneva B. Johnson Lecture Series, which featured keynote speaker Marie Wilson, president and founder of the White House Project.

A young woman in the audience asked Wilson what suggestions she had for achieving work/life balance. I think everyone in the audience was surprised at her response. “Forget about balance,” she said. “We may never have balance again. The best you can hope for is to find work for which you have passion and that is consistent with your values.”

Perhaps Wilson is right, but choosing work that you love may be a luxury in a time when so many are just grateful to have a job. The current economy and the struggle to maintain profits have resulted in downsizing with fewer employees and resources left to keep the business afloat.

Add to this the pressure and stress of our personal lives and its impact on our ability to be productive and focused while at work – care of aging parents, rising costs of living, the fear of layoff, the demands of raising children, worry that savings will run out, and fewer options as banks tighten up lending practices.

It’s not only the rank-and-file who are feeling added stress. Increased workload, responsibility and risk are taking its toll on company leaders and senior executives, as well.

The way we work has changed. We no longer “leave it at the office.” Technology has blurred the boundaries of work and personal life leaving us endlessly accessible. For leaders and executives, the added pressure is often more difficult because they’ve been trained to remain calm and fearless in front of employees, not willing to admit that stress is a problem.

The new work/life balance

The expectations for balance between work and personal life have changed with Generations X and Y, who place a greater value on work/life balance than previous generations.

Most of us think of this balance as a separation between job responsibilities and our personal lives. When work intrudes upon our personal space and time, interfering with family activities, personal interests, recreation or rest, we feel out of balance. Tension, resentment and exhaustion set in and eventually affect the quality of our work performance.

The physical, emotional and mental toll can lead to disaster – both personally and professionally.

As employers and business owners, it behooves us to think carefully about “doing more with less” as a permanent business practice.

Yes, the current economy demands frugality, but the impact of employee stress on the bottom line is well-documented. Reports from the American Psychological Association place a price tag of more than $300 billion a year on job-related stress. This includes costs related to lost productivity, stress-related illness, increased absenteeism, increased work injury and declining morale.

Certainly, we will never be able to create a stress-free workplace. But it is possible to create an environment that reduces its impact.

Workplace stress management doesn’t have to cost a lot.

Volumes have been written about dealing with stress, but these are extraordinary times and the usual “self-care” advice, although helpful, just isn’t going to cut it. Employers need solutions that are meaningful and low-cost.

  1. Give employees more control. Research shows that occupational stress is at its worst when work expectations are high and employees have no control over work-related decisions. People do better work when they have more control in their lives. Allowing employees to have input into job-related decisions and flexibility in the way they do their work results in greater job satisfaction, higher quality work and less stress.
  2. Make vacation and personal time off mandatory. We tend to place great value on work and activity and little value on rest and recovery. Taking the time to recharge usually results in greater productivity upon return. CEOs and senior executives (often the worst offenders) need to lead by example.
  3. Be flexible. Give executives more flexibility in setting their hours. Loosen up on some of the requirements about work hours and being in the office five days a week. It’s not about effort, it’s about outcomes. People can be very productive working from home, and it can be better for families and companies.
  4. Provide support. Offer opportunities for employees to learn how to manage stress through onsite coaching, counseling, in-house yoga and massage. These are all viable tools for stress reduction.
  5. Re-evaluate priorities. When work demands are high or there is organizational change, strategize and clearly communicate the company priorities – focus on the most important activities the company needs to undertake and cancel the rest.
  6. Be open. Encourage positive dialogue to avoid an environment of complaining. When projects require extra commitment, create a company wide activity or theme that names the project, identifies the timelines, and gives a voice to the levels of commitment required and the inevitable resulting stress. Offer a reward (pizza, free lunch, time off) when the project is finished – the goal is reached.

We may never go back to the work/life balance of the past, but how we adapt to changes in business and the economy will determine the outcome. Companies can maintain their profitability and healthy, motivated employees by choosing to be proactive and adapt.

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